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Ukraine's Sale Of Cruise Missiles With A Nuclear Potential To Iran Also Pose Deadly Threat To Europe

According to reports published in the British journal "Financial Times" Ukraine has admitted that it exported 12 long range cruise missiles to Iran and six to China in 2001; the missiles were reportedly sold without their nuclear warheads. Ukraine's prosecutor-general told reporters that the Russian businessmen suspected of masterminding the sale, was arrested last July in Prague in response to a Ukrainian warrant. If the new missiles become operational, Iran will be in striking distance of all Middle East states as well as most countries in Europe.

The AS-15 Nuclear capable long range cruise missile

Ukraine has recently admitted it exported 12 long-range Russian built AS-15 cruise missiles to Iran. The AS-15 is a 6-meter long, 1.7-ton missile with an estimated range of about 3000 km (apprx. 2000 miles). The first Soviet model was tested in 1978 and entered service in 1984. The AS-15 (NATO code named Kent) is operated from two types of long-range strategic bombers: the older Tu-95 (Bear) and the more modern supersonic Tu-160 (Blackjack). Much like the United States original Tomahawk cruise missile used in the First Gulf War, the AS-15 is designed to fly at a low altitude using internal guidance and the Terrain Contour Matching System. It uses radar to match the on board 3-D database of the terrain the missile traverses. This system "sees" the terrain it is flying over by use of its radar, which it matches to the 3-D map stored in the missile's memory. Although the new generation of Tomahawk cruise missiles, used in the recent war in Iraq, were upgraded to a more precise and cost effective GPS system, the older AS-15 is still considered an advanced weapons system which can land just a few dozen meters from its target, when launched from a distance of 3000 km.

The basic AS-15 Soviet design carried a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead (about ten times the amount dropped on Nagasaki). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine kept a number of Tu-160 aircraft, which were deployed along with their AS-15 cruise missiles. Some of these planes with their missiles were returned to Russia and the rest were dismantled in 2001 under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). According to Ukraine's prosecutor-general, during the same year a Russian businessman named Oleg Orlov was involved in selling 18 of Ukraine's AS-15 cruise missiles to both China and Iran. According to this report the missiles were sold without their nuclear warheads.

The New Iranian Missile Range

Although highly lethal by trained personnel, the AS-15 is a complex technology to operate. The Iranians currently do not have large strategic bombers such as the Tu-95 or the Tu-160 that were designed to launch the AS-15. Even if they can somehow rig one of their SU-24 tactical bombers to carry the long and heavy cruise missile, it is doubtful they would be capable of operating and updating the complex Terrain Contour Matching System on their own. Replacing the system with a GPS guidance system could solve this problem, although the U.S. has the capability of locally neutralizing civilian G.P.S systems in times of conflict. Another option the Iranians might try is converting one of their large transport planes to carry the cruise missile. Even if launched from Iranian territory, the AS-15 could still easily hit any country in the Middle East including Israel as well as American forces stationed in the region. This capability isn't unique to the AS-15, because Iran's Shihab 3 ballistic missile, which is now operational, has a range of some 1300 km. The AS-15 will add many European countries such as Italy, Greece, and Germany to Iran's list of potential targets. Using the SU-24 as a firing platform will extend the range to cover all of Europe including France, Spain and the U.K.

Defending against cruise missiles is considered by military experts to be extremely difficult. Although they fly at relatively low speeds (subsonic), they tend to stay at extremely low altitudes of only a few dozen meters above ground and are thus very hard to detect and track by ground based radars. Using air based radar systems might help but tracking a 6-meter low flying missile is never easy. If given the proper warning, fighter planes can engage incoming cruise missiles with similar tactics as used by British pilots in World War II who destroyed dozens of German V-I cruise missiles. But modern cruise missiles are obviously much more sophisticated fly much lower and faster than their V-I predecessors, thus leaving the bulk of the cruise missile defense to ground based air defense systems. During the Second Iraq War, the U.S. and Kuwaiti Patriot air defense units shot down all 9 of the Iraqi short range ballistic missiles, but failed to intercept even one of the five Iraqi Seersucker cruise missiles launched against Kuwait. This failure is of particular importance since it occurred during combat in the highly prepared and highly defended arena of Kuwait. As a first strike surprise weapon uploaded with biological or even a dirty nuclear device, the Iranian AS-15 could potentially pose the perfect mass terror weapon.

David Essing

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